Witless Protection

Coping with the sixteenth minute

By Cullen Murphy

Last spring a seventy-nine-year-old woman serving on the jury in the case of the alleged Tyco kleptocrats Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz was seen making a motion with her hand that observers interpreted as an "okay" signal being flashed to the defense team. Because this juror—Juror No. 4—was widely believed to be the lone holdout against conviction in the long-deadlocked jury deliberations, a suspicion of jury-tampering seeped into the atmosphere. Then, despite the venerable practice of shielding the identity of jurors, at least until a trial is over, the name of the woman was divulged by the press, and her picture was soon splashed on the front pages of tabloids. Juror No. 4 turned out to be a grandmother and former teacher named Ruth Jordan, who had earned a law degree after retiring from the classroom; and as it happened, her supposed hand signal to the defense was an innocuous gesture, empty of intent. No matter: she was subjected to much scorn, and received a threatening letter. Disturbed about what had happened, the presiding judge declared a mistrial. Kozlowski and Swartz must steel themselves for more of the same(another courtroom, another festival of embarrassing evidence), but for Jordan life will never again be quite normal.

The details may change, but the general circumstances Ruth Jordan faced have an appalling whiff of familiarity about them: an unwitting citizen is suddenly caught in the pitiless glare of the media, and either can't or won't get out. It is never an edifying sight, and unfortunately, given the way publicity works in America, it is increasingly hard to avoid. A visitor coming fresh to our civilization would remark these squirming figures and take them as a warning, much as anyone approaching a medieval city would have remarked the residue of miscreants on poles and gibbets.

Even the briefest reflection calls to mind scores of recent examples. There is the case of Alexandra Polier, a young woman who once had dinner with Senator John Kerry and became the focus of baseless rumors about an illicit affair. ("Intrigue surrounds a woman who recently fled the country, reportedly at the prodding of Kerry, the Drudge Report has learned.")

There is the case of Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs fan who during a crucial playoff game last fall reached out for and deflected a foul ball that Chicago's Moises Alou might have been able to catch. The Cubs went on to lose the game, and the playoffs. Bartman, who issued a statement saying he was "truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart," was nevertheless hounded by ill-wishers. The Chicago Sun-Times reported, "At one point Wednesday, six police cars were parked outside the Bartman home as reporters crowded the street."

There is the case of Richard Jewell, the security guard who became a suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games, in Atlanta, and whose name was invoked in many media outlets as if a guilty verdict had already been reached. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out that he fit the profile of a lone bomber: "This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military, or police 'wannabe' who seeks to become a hero." Jewell, the authorities soon established, had nothing to do with the bombing.

Think a little further. There is Fawn Hall, an assistant to the Iran-contra impresario Oliver North, who shredded some papers for her boss and has found herself portrayed ever since as a femme fatale. There is Baby Jessica, the toddler who fell down the well in Texas and after fifty-eight hours was finally extracted; for chronological bearings, please note that Baby Jessica recently graduated from high school. There is Frank Wills, the security guard who found on a door the telltale piece of duct tape that led to the discovery of the Watergate break-in; and Betty Currie, who was ensnared in the Interngate scandal because, as Bill Clinton's private secretary, she facilitated Monica Lewinsky's comings and goings; and Theresa LePore, who designed Palm Beach County's unfortunate butterfly ballot. Think of George Holliday, the man who filmed the Rodney King beating (think of Rodney King himself). And let's not forget the dressmaker Abraham Zapruder, who serendipitously filmed the Kennedy assassination. Or Ruth Paine, who innocently befriended Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife, and in whose home Oswald stowed his rifle (without Paine's knowledge). The brief acquaintanceship forever altered Paine's life—a story told unforgettably by Thomas Mallon in his book Mrs. Paine's Garage.

Taking the long view, one could argue that these sorts of quasi-public figures are essential to the historical process. They stumble into view for a single catalytic purpose. T. S. Eliot's lines in "Prufrock" come to mind: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two." It's also true that quasi-public status can be extremely vexing—vexing for the person thrust into the limelight, who wishes it would dim; or vexing for the rest of us, when those who relish the limelight overstay their welcome. As we all know, Andy Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. But finding the best way to handle the sixteenth minute remains a social challenge of the first order.

Could the example of the federal Witness Protection Program offer a possible solution? The program exists to provide a safe haven for people who want to testify in court against wrongdoers but fear for their lives if they do so. Sometimes the witnesses are utter innocents who desire nothing more than to do the right thing and then return to a quiet life. At other times they are malefactors ratting on criminal associates in return for lenient treatment, and will need special handling in prison and afterward. In both instances the aim is to hide their true identities from the general population.

How would an analogous program for the overpublicized work in practice? For those innocents who have stumbled into public view and simply want to stumble out—the Ruth Jordans and Steve Bartmans—the program would offer a standard package: relocation, identity change, and modest financial recompense. Further, a private corporation modeled on ASCAP, which handles royalties for popular music, could be set up. Each time a Betty Currie or a Ruth Paine or a George Holliday was mentioned in print or on the air, the "user" would be charged a small fee. Of course, if any of the victims "escaped" back into public view (turning up suddenly with Barbara Walters, say) all bets would be off. The victims would enter Phase II—the Witless Protection Program.

Phase II would be reserved for that class of people—like Kato Kaelin (former O.J. witness/houseguest), Katherine Harris (Florida-recount czarina), Jason Allen Alexander (two-day husband of Britney Spears), and almost anyone emerging from reality television—who find that they cannot voluntarily leave the stage. It would be tempting to remove them forcibly, consign them to some location without media access, and allow plastic surgeons to use them as guinea pigs in refining the emerging technology of face transplantation ("still too risky" for the general public, according to a British scientific journal). But this would have possibly insuperable due-process implications.

A more feasible option is suggested by a growing phenomenon in India, where people have had relatives falsely declared dead in order to seize their property. The practice is so widespread—some 35,000 people have been falsely declared dead in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone—that an advocacy group, the Association of the Living Dead, has been created to work in their behalf. One scholarly definition of "the undead" holds them to be "that class of corporeal beings who at some point were living creatures" and have "come back such that they are not presently 'at rest.'" This definition fits our subjects snugly.

So: why not simply declare Kato, Jason, and all the others dead? Don't think of yourselves as enjoying a sixteenth minute, we'd be saying. Think of it, rather, as the first minute of the rest of your eternity.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/09/witless-protection/303468/